Mr Holmes

January 19, 2016

In one of the opening lines of this film, Ian McKellen’s Sherlock Holmes chastises a young boy, who’s about to kill what he thinks is a bee. “That isn’t a bee,” Holmes says, “It’s a wasp. It’s a different thing entirely.”

It’s a phrase that could well be applied to Bill Condon’s character study of the legendary sleuth, that bucks the popular trend of giving heroes an origin story. Instead it gives us a postlude, that’s more interested in deepening our understanding of the person, than in building upon the myth.

Initially it feels like an extended episode of the many period dramas clogging up the TV schedule, with a plot that reads like a mash up of the Werther’s Original ads and Still Alice, while a splash of Charlotte Gilman’s classic feminist text, The Yellow Wallpaper, is mixed in for gothic flavor.

As a 93-year old Holmes tries to recount to his housekeeper’s fatherless son, his ‘final’ case- about a woman’s dangerous melancholy following the loss of her unborn children, his mental faculties fail him, forcing him to confront the life he has lived.

The ‘case of the week’ structure thus splinters allowing Condon to explore how the tales others spin about us come to define us. Blurring fact and fiction, memory and perception and- most importantly, logic and emotion, a series of unreliable narrators etch-o-sketch the details of his climatic case before his every worsening dementia wipes the slate clean before he can grasp fully what went wrong. So wrong that he gave up his work and exiled himself to the Dover coast.

From Dr Watson’s fact-based fictions which made Holmes a legend, to the movies adapted out of them that made him a star, Sherlock’s own sieve like recollections have us question the very basic narrative that Condon seems to be telling, making amateur detectives of us all.

There are parlor game plot devices, fictions within fictions and duel representations of characters- in the film within the film of the book based on the case, which will give meta film buffs plenty of opportunity to ‘kick the tires’ of the plots construction.

It really is a handsomely built movie, with a score from long time Coen Brothers collaborator Carter Burwell, quaint views of the southern coast of England and some delightful character actors fleshing out the smaller parts including Roger Allam as a local doctor and Frances Del A Tour and Frances Barber as mirror images of a prime suspect.

Its emotional heft comes up slowly, but lingers as the credits role, a melancholy buzz aided greatly by a masterful troika of subtle turns from McKellen as Holmes, Laura Linney as his keeper and Milo Parker as the son.Each one is grappling with loss, regret and the scourges of passing from one age to the next. It is, essentially, a movie about connections, about engaging in your reality, not just surviving or escaping it.

Mr Holmes is an oddity, in that it presents no great demand to see it in the cinema, but feels like a movie that should be viewed communally- in a post-turkey slumber perhaps, with the curtains pulled and a comfortable silence between cohorts.


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